The Incremental Revolutionary

It may not be easy to tell now, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have a lot in common. One example: they're both strongly pro-choice. Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League have awarded each of them perfect 100 percent scores for opposing abortion restrictions. So Democrats in New Hampshire might have been a bit surprised when Clinton began criticizing Obama for not being pro-choice enough. "A woman's right to choose demands a leader who will stand up and protect it," read a mailing sent out to Democrats in the state on the eve of last week's primary.

Without giving details, the flier knocked Obama for votes he cast years ago on several anti-abortion bills when he was an Illinois state senator. Along with a bloc of other Democrats, Obama had voted "present" instead of "no"—a maneuver intended to rob Republicans of fodder to use against them in campaign attack ads. (A vote of present essentially counted as a no, since a bill needed a majority of affirmative votes to pass.) The anti-abortion measures failed. Still, the Clinton mailing featured a sidelong picture of Obama alongside the words UNWILLING TO TAKE A STAND ON CHOICE; Clinton smiles sweetly at the camera. The mailing found its mark. Obama canvassers reported that people around the state had started asking them about the candidate's record on abortion.

In the days after his Iowa win, Obama and his advisers believed they could ride a wave of good will through New Hampshire and beyond. But they underestimated the power of Clinton's war room in full crisis mode. Clinton didn't win there simply because she teared up. Obama was outmaneuvered by her superior organization in the state, and overwhelmed by a barrage of carefully aimed criticisms intended to raise doubts about Obama's central claim as a candidate—that he is a change agent, a lifelong reformer who will heal Washington by bringing together feuding politicians of both parties.

At first, Obama's sunny disposition seemed to confound Clinton strategists: how could they hit back against Mr. Optimism without appearing mean and petty themselves? They have now found their line of argument. Obama's perceived strength as a leader, they suggest, is actually a weakness: his desire to bring people together may make him seem high-minded and likable, but in trying to be all things to all people he winds up avoiding difficult decisions—i.e., he votes present instead of yes or no. In recent days, the Clinton camp has continued to go after Obama for his positions on Iraq funding, health care, border security, prison sentencing, capital punishment and a dozen other issues. "There is a big difference between talking and acting, between promising and delivering,'' Clinton said in New Hampshire.

Bill Clinton took it a step further, and left no doubt that the campaign has entered a harder, edgier phase. The former president accused the press of going easy on Obama. "The idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the other is negative … is a little tough to take. Just because of the sanitizing coverage that's in the media doesn't mean the facts aren't out there."

The trouble is that in politics, "the facts" alone don't always make things clearer. Take Obama's abortion votes. It is true he voted present several times between 1997 and 2001. But it was part of a strategy designed by Planned Parenthood. Republicans in the Illinois Senate had repeatedly tried to pass bills restricting abortion. This put Democrats in a difficult position. They wanted to vote against the bills, but worried they would be smeared by Republican opponents for opposing legislation with names like "The Born Alive Infant Protection Act." So Obama and a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans cut a deal with Planned Parenthood. The politicians would vote present as a bloc. The bills wouldn't get enough votes, and the pols would have political cover. Everybody would win.

Pam Sutherland, president of Illinois Planned Parenthood, tells NEWSWEEK that the ploy was her idea: "Senator Obama was always a no vote in committee, but we had other Democrats, and a couple of Republicans, who were tired of having mailers sent out against them." Sutherland says Obama could have voted no without suffering any negative fallout, since he came from a very liberal Chicago district. But, she says, his participation in the deal helped give cover to his colleagues.

The abortion maneuver is emblematic of a style of politics that shows up throughout Obama's career, both in Illinois and in Washington. Though in speeches he sounds like an idealistic revolutionary out to take back the capital, Obama's record suggests he is actually more of an incrementalist. On the stump, he speaks in the grandest terms, but in practice he inches his way toward a goal. At times he has settled for a piece of what he set out to achieve in hopes of getting a little bit more the next time around. If Obama is selling any revolutionary idea, it's a celebration of compromise.

That's a rare concept in Washington, where getting nothing done is seen as a victory, and giving up an inch to the other side a defeat. "Since the founding, the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary," Obama told Harper's magazine in 2006. "What that means is that for a political leader to get things done, he or she ideally should be ahead of the curve, but not too far ahead. I want to push the envelope but make sure I have enough folks with me that I'm not rendered politically impotent."

No one ever won a presidential campaign with the slogan "Incremental Change for Working Americans," and Obama's inclusive, take-what-you-can-get style has had mixed results. In Illinois, Obama sponsored an expansion of a program called KidCare, which extended health coverage to children up to 200 percent above the poverty level (up from 185 percent). In all, it extended benefits to an additional 150,000 people in the state. But his efforts to push a much more ambitious universal-health-care proposal stalled when his colleagues demanded to know how to pay for it. Obama realized the plan was going nowhere, and settled for a compromise: a commission to study the issue. "Anyone can introduce a bill," says Dale Righter, a Republican who faced Obama on the issue. "Anyone elected to the General Assembly can turn on their microphone and make a speech."

In Springfield, Obama, who got his political start in the tough political wars on Chicago's South Side, knew the value of making friends fast. He curried favor with the chamber's battle-scarred veterans, including Senate President Emil Jones, an old-school Chicago pol. When he first arrived, Obama chose the worst seat in the chamber, way in the back next to the men's room. Anyone who needed to relieve himself had to get by Obama first.

Obama befriended Democrats and Republicans, including law-and-order conservatives—friendships that proved useful as he helped reform the state's death-penalty policies. After legal activists uncovered several wrongful convictions of death-row inmates, there was no doubt the system needed to be fixed. The then Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentence of every Illinois death-row inmate. Jones, the state Senate president, picked Obama to broker a deal between feuding Democrats and Republicans. Obama pushed a plan that would require police to videotape their interrogations and confessions incapital cases.

Some Republicans, prosecutors and police groups opposed it, saying it would be too cumbersome. But Obama took his case to death-penalty advocates, insisting it was the only way police and prosecutors could restore confidence in the criminal-justice system. In the end, this argument won over the cops and his colleagues. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who initially opposed the reform, signed it into law after a 58-0 vote in the Senate.

Obama's signature effort in Springfield and Washington was ethics reform. The Illinois Legislature was considered the Wild West of campaign finance, and Obama and three colleagues were appointed to lead the cleanup. Together, they led the effort to ban gifts from anyone doing business with the state government. The new law forced lawmakers to disclose contributions of as little as $50 and stopped politicians from using campaign funds for personal expenses.

Some Republicans grumble that on the campaign trail, Obama is taking a bit more credit than he deserves for his accomplishments in Illinois. "I don't remember Barack leading the charge on any issue," says Republican state Sen. Christine Radogno. "He wasn't here and engaged long enough to develop the relationships, the knowledge of all the constituencies and nuances for all of that to happen."

Yet even many Republicans who opposed him on the issues say they found Obama to be reasonable and easy to work with. They say he didn't take politics personally and wasn't interested in grandstanding. "He's certainly a nice enough guy," says Radogno, who describes him as "charming" and "engaging." Kirk Dillard, another Republican state senator who worked closely with Obama, says the two of them met every Monday for a year at 7 a.m. to work on the death-penalty reforms. He says Obama would have liked to do more, "but he's practical. He knew when it was time to quit and to pass a bill."

In Washington, Obama continued to work on ethics issues, teaming up with fellow Democrat Russ Feingold after a series of national scandals surrounding GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Their legislation required more disclosure of pork-barrel spending and the "bundlers" who collect large campaign contributions.

James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, says Obama deserves much of the credit for the cleanup. "I think he was one of the major forces behind the provisions that came out in the act," says Thurber, who testified to Congress on the issues. "He held meetings, a lot of cross-party ones. He was trying to find support where he could." However, the reforms were not entirely successful: Obama's effort to create a tough independent Office of Public Integrity to monitor Congress went nowhere. "Senior members were against it," says Thurber. "I really think that's his biggest failure."

Hillary Clinton says Obama's ethics reforms left too many loopholes, and points to one that does seem especially ridiculous: though the new law prohibits lobbyists from paying for meals at restaurants, it doesn't stop them from throwing lavish parties where members of Congress stand up while they eat. Yet Clinton herself was one of 20 Democrats who rejected the Office of Public Integrity idea. "She thought it would add an additional layer of unnecessary bureaucracy and would further politicize the ethics process," says Clinton spokesman Jay Carson.

Any candidate who runs as a reformer is bound to attract close scrutiny of his own ethics. Chicago newspapers have published extensive stories about Obama's ties to Tony Rezko, a fund-raiser and developer who is under indictment for fraud. In 2005, Obama bought a house in Chicago. On the same day, Rezko bought the plot of land next to it, and later sold Obama a slice of his plot so the senator could expand his yard. At the time it was widely reported that Rezko was under investigation by the U.S. attorney for allegedly shaking down firms that wanted to do business with state agencies. There is no evidence that Obama gave any political favors to Rezko. He voted against some of Rezko's business interests as a state senator, and gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Rezko to charity. Obama has called the deal with Rezko "a boneheaded mistake."

At times, what Obama might call pragmatism can look like a simple loss of nerve. When he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2003, Obama filled out a questionnaire for the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for Women in which he stated his opposition to the president's Patriot Act. "Yes, I would vote to repeal the U.S. Patriot Act," he wrote. "I would consider replacing that shoddy and dangerous law with a new, carefully crafted proposal that addressed in a much more limited fashion the legitimate needs of law enforcement in combating terrorism." In a speech to the American Library Association, he called for the Senate to rewrite the law to keep "Big Brother" from "peering over our shoulder." Yet when the Patriot Act came up for renewal in 2005, Obama compromised and voted alongside 88 other senators to reauthorize the law, even though the new version had only "modest" changes. "The compromise is far from perfect," he said. But it was good enough.

Bill Clinton has been especially outspoken about Obama's position on the Iraq War. The former president is frustrated that Obama has been able to make the case that his judgment against the war on Iraq is worth more than Hillary's experience. Last week he challenged the media for not focusing on what he suggested was an Obama flip-flop. "This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I have ever seen," he said about Obama's position on Iraq.

By Clinton's account, Obama said in 2004 that he wasn't sure how he might have voted on the war had he been in the Senate at the time of the vote. The truth is more complicated. The statement Clinton refers to was made by Obama during the week of the 2004 Democratic convention. Obama was there to give the keynote speech in support of the nominee, John Kerry, who had voted to support the war. Obama now says that he was in an awkward spot: he didn't want to undermine or embarrass Kerry, so he chose his words a little too carefully. Obama told The New York Times: "I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports. What would I have done? I don't know." Clinton left out what Obama said in the very next breath: "What I know is that from my vantage point, the case was not made."

By late last week, as the glow of the New Hampshire victory was beginning to fade, Clinton appeared to regret his angry remarks about Obama. He seemed concerned that it was being taken the wrong way by African-Americans, a key Democratic constituency. Bill called Al Sharpton's radio show to express his regret at any misunderstanding. "There's nothing 'fairy tale' about his campaign. It's real, it's strong, and he might win," said the former president, emphasizing that he only meant to highlight what he still regarded as inconsistencies in Obama's Iraq position.

But Obama has his own adjustments to make. After his Iowa win, Obama thought he could ignore Team Clinton's challenges and stay above it all, sticking to his grand themes of hope and change. But in the aftermath of New Hampshire, he realized he was going to have to answer the Clinton campaign's charges. "Former president Clinton has continued to mischaracterize my record … and we're going to have to call him on it," he told National Public Radio. "You know, the press has already pointed out that he's wrong about this, but he keeps on repeating it." For better or worse, Barack Obama is starting to sound like a candidate for president.